A series of mysteries. An explosion of truths.The Explosionist: Someone sets off a bomb outside fifteen-year-old Sophies boarding school, but no one can figure out who. The Medium: Soothsayers and séance leaders are regular guests at her great-aunts house in Scotland, but only one delivers a terrifying prophecy, directed at Sophie herself.The Murder: When the medium is found dead, Sophie and her friend Mikael know they must get to the bottom of these three mysteries in order to save themselves—even as the fate of all Europe hangs in the balance.Set in a time of subversive politics, homegrown terrorism, and rapidly changing alliances, The Explosionist is an extraordinarily accomplished debut novel for teens that delivers a glimpse of the world as it might have been—had one moment in history been altered.

Sophie is an intelligent and well-brought-up girl on the verge of taking her final exams in Edinburgh, 1938. In a world in which Wellington lost to Napoleon at Waterloo, there are many subtle differences from our world. In fact, it took me a few chapters of minor details that struck me as odd to be sure this was an alternate history. Sophie’s Scotland hears rumors of the terrors enacted in Europe (which engulfed England long before), but they have thus far stayed resolutely politically neutral, while providing weaponry to the various warlike nations. Then Sophie stumbles across a plot to pull Scotland into the war, and not only does she have to uncover it, but deal with her increasing suspicions that her Great-Aunt’s pet governmental project doesn’t educate young women so much as brainwash them…

I really like Sophie, who has a distinct personality and is delightfully competent, while remaining totally believable as a 15 year old who’s been somewhat sheltered. She figures out the main mystery not that long after I did (which was a relief–I hate stories where the solution is obvious but no one picks up on it). And I appreciated how many interesting adult characters there were with their own priorities and stories. (Personal favorite of course was her poised and mysteriously knowledgeable history professor, Miss Chatterjee.) I particularly loved discovering the differences between Sophie’s society and my expectations. For instance, thanks to their isolation from trade and independence from England, Scotland developed rather different technologies, with greater emphasis on electrically-based tech than in reality. But there are still enough similarities (there’s a running thread about the terrible food her boarding school and aunt’s cook serve Sophie that I loved encountering–I’ll never get tired of hearing about gooseberry fool and “shapes”) and references to known historical personages (sometimes serving rather different roles than expected) that it still feels recognizable.

My only quibble with this book is that it’s developed quite well and written at a good pace until the last few chapters, which both resolve too many things too swiftly, and set up a huge cliffhanger. I did not expect this to end in a cliffhanger, let alone such a huge one! I suppose I’ll have to read the next book. I would have read it anyway, and now I’m a bit sulky that the author felt I needed to be coerced into doing so in such a hamfisted way.

credit: Wealhtheow


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Simon Winchester, the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of Atlantic and The Professor and the Madman, delivers his first book about America: a fascinating popular history that illuminates the men who toiled fearlessly to discover, connect, and bond the citizenry and geography of the U.S.A. from its beginnings.How did America become “one nation, indivisible”? What unified a growing number of disparate states into the modern country we recognise today? To answer these questions, Winchester follows in the footsteps of America’s most essential explorers, thinkers, and innovators, such as Lewis and Clark and the leaders of the Great Surveys; the builders of the first transcontinental telegraph and the powerful civil engineer behind the Interstate Highway System. He treks vast swaths of territory, from Pittsburgh to Portland, Rochester to San Francisco, Seattle to Anchorage, introducing the fascinating people who played a pivotal role in creating today’s United States.Throughout, he ponders whether the historic work of uniting the States has succeeded, and to what degree. Featuring 32 illustrations throughout the text, The Men Who United the States is a fresh look at the way in which the most powerful nation on earth came together.

This sweeping history of largely unsung heroes of vision and creativity behind America’s exploration and infrastructure development was uplifting and informative. Starting with Lewis and Clarke, Winchester’s lively narrative brings to life the stories of key individuals for charting the young nation’s geography and geology, exploiting its waterways, building roads, canals, and railroads, linking its far reaches by telegraph and then by telephone, radio, and electricity. We take so much for granted, but each of these achievements involved a human story and a host of challenges. He puts himself on the road to places that are significant to these accomplishments, so his storytelling from history becomes integrated with his personal travelogue. He makes an odd frame for organizing his narrative in relation to the five classic Oriental elements of wood, earth, water, fire, and metal, but his progression is logical enough without straining to these metaphors. I like the thrust of his overall urge to account for the bones and flesh of America’s stable unity of states and peoples despite so much diversity.

Winchester writes with energy (and occasional hyperbole) that was fun to listen to in his reading for the audiobook version. The effort clearly reflects his admiration of his adopted nation. His special affinity for geology and map making I was already a fan of from previous works of his that I’ve read. He acknowledges the bad deal and genocidal proportions of how Native Americans were treated effectively as impediments to Manifest Destiny of white dominion over all resources. However, the human achievements of the explorers, engineers and the dreamers still deserve our interest and appreciation. He tries to get at what drives them and finds admirable aspects of their personalities relevant to their talents and actions, but he does not shy away from varied contribution of self-centeredness, greed, jealousy, or lunacy behind their successes. I appreciate his probing mind, sense of wonder over human creativity, and ability to put so many threads of history into his tapestry.

credit: Michael
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Set during World War II, Agatha Christie’s riveting novel in her Tommy and Tuppence series follows the unlikely espionage agents as they pursue a pair of Nazi spies who have murdered Britain’s top agent—now a movie on both Acorn TV and PBS.World War II is raging, and while the RAF struggles to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, Britain faces a sinister threat from “the enemy within”—Nazis posing as ordinary citizens.With pressure mounting, the intelligence service appoints two improbable spies, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their mission: to seek out a man and a woman from among the colorful guests at Sans Souci, a seaside hotel. But this assignment is far from an easy stroll along the promenade—N and M have just murdered Britain’s finest agent and no one can be trusted.

As light reading between more demanding literary works, Agatha Christie never fails. Although Tommy and Tuppence were always my least favourite sleuths of Agatha Christie’s, the detective formula largely follows the same formulas as in the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple stories.

This one has a bit of Fawlty Towers about it. It’s on the eve of World War II, and T & T go sleuthing in a sleepy seaside boarding house. There they meet the usual suspects: a retired major, a strange foreign woman, a dimwitted elderly woman and her hypochondriac husband, a seemingly devoted mother and her child, a suspicious young German, etc. Will T & & be able to unravel the spies of the ‘fifth column’ before Hitler invades Britain, or will they be found out …?

Although the hotel boasts of no Basil Fawlty, the story is like a comedy of manners here and there, with some delightful phrases and characterizations. The hypochondriac coughs aggressively, the little child goes into ecstasies of mirth, the imbecile wife murmurs pacifically and so on. It got a bit soppy toward the end and was, in essence, predictably unpredictable.

My tattered copy is a testament to the days when I first began my English book collection, searching the dusty bookshelves in second-hand shops up and down Charing Cross Road. I first read this book back then but remember not a single thing. So, less demanding may also mean less rewarding, but there’s something to be said for a bit of brain candy before (and after) more taxing reading experiences. Dostoevsky, here I come!


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